Historical Particularism – Boas, Kroeber and Radin

All subsequent quotes are taken from the associated texts unless otherwise noted.

This particular method of research was the brain-child of Franz Boas. It was also the first school of anthropological thought that was born on American soil.

Franz Boas (1858-1942)

Historical  particularism is a method of research that was the brain-child of Franz Boas; the founding principle being, that which Boas wished to both “live and die” by, was the equality of rights for all. It was this sentiment that influenced Boas’ to ultimately move to America as  this nation in particular represented, in his eyes, the ideal in equality. Due to his training in the physical sciences, Boas’ approach to ethnographic research was an expectedly rigorous one. It was his belief that ethnographic fieldwork should consist of a three-fold approach; to include an assessment of environmental impact on the society in question, pertinent psychological factors, and what Boas deemed most important: Historical Connections, as it was his view that each society is a product of its own historical circumstances.  His consistent disavowal of social Darwinism could very well be linked to the notion that Boas may not have “fully understood or accepted…natural selection.”  In addition, Boas believed that the “sweeping generalizations of unilinear social evolutionists” were invalid from a scientific standpoint, stating that:

 “[C]ultures may have similar traits for a variety of reasons…independent of any universal evolutionary process. Thus, the existence of such traits could not be used as evidence for universal stages of cultural evolution.”

Boas can rightfully be credited with the pioneering of the concept of Cultural Relativism concomitantly with Historical Particularism. Despite his many influential perspectives on this field, Boas was stripped of his membership and ultimately censured by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) for 96 years from 1919-2005.

A Breakdown of the Reading

Boas begins by calling out the two forces in Anthropology that he felt needed to be contended with, Diffusion and Social Evolution. The former stating that Culture is not present naturally, but is imported from its root source; the latter, purports that cultures go through a series of classifications before they have reached that of the standard: European Societies. As you may recall, Boas believes in the equality of all persons and therefore all societies. It is important to note that Boas’ primary concern is the methods by which Ethnographic studies are conducted, not the theories behind them. As Boas would have it, ethnographers would collect data and interpret the data to form a conclusion, in direct contrast to the scientific method which calls for a theory or hypothesis that is to be tested, the text simplifies by calling Boas’ an inductive approach. The study of the Zuñi serve as a prime example of his concept of the supremacy of historical connections as the mold from which culture is formed.

A. L. Kroeber (1876-1960)

As a student of Boas, Kroeber shared the same basic view of Anthropology, that societies are shaped by their respective histories.

A Breakdown of the Reading


1.) History is concerned with how social facts and society come together.

2.)Anthropology is not to  be concerned with the man, but rather what he has accomplished.

3.) Civilization, though a product of humanity, remains a superorganic, apart from humankind.

4.) Each subject has his own mind, but it should not be viewed as the source of his actions.

5.)History studies what an individual or group has done, its purpose is not to speculate as to the underlying causes.

6.) The individual serves no purpose to historical studies, not to say that they are invaluable, but they hold no truths for historical research.

7.) Civilization is not caused by geographic location. Kroeber uses agriculture to support this claim, agriculture is demanded by society, society decides how it is to be performed based on the specific environment, the environment did not spawn agriculture.

8-14.) In the intervening professions Kroeber states and restates the notion that despite their appearances, all societies have equal propensity for civilization, and each individual has the propensity to as educated or wise as the next. Therefore, there can be no stages of civilization, social standards, “ethnic minds”, or hereditary influence. This is an egalitarian perspective that is reminiscent of his teacher, Boas. The position that all

15.) Unlike the various sciences, there are no strict rules by which history must follow, the Illiad being a prime example of the age-old adage, ” all’s fair in love and war”, i.e. there are no rules. Paris can steal away a Grecian king’s wife for love, and countless men can lay down their lives and those that they laid low in the intervening conflict for the honor of “king/queen and country”, etcetera; Operation Iraqi Freedom, various other conflicts in the mid and far-East, and the “War on Terror” are no exceptions to this overarching theme.

16.) History is concerned, strictly, with what actually occurred with no interest given to what may have been the underlying causes of any specific event.

17.)From the 16th profession, it is apparent that what history lacks, as it should per Kroeber, is a study of the ultimate causes of any specific event.

18.) Kroeber ultimately rended a gap between History and the other sciences, saying that we could not be more different at a basic level of methodology and determination.

Paul Radin (1883-1959

 Radin, also a student of Boas, to a different piece of his teacher’s body of work . Where Kroeber focused on the group and disregarded the ultimate importance of the individual, Radin focused on the individual to the point of fathering a more biographical or literary approach rather than scientific.

A Breakdown of the Reading

After many years of research, the enormous amount of data was sifted through and Radin chose 25 gems to represent the ideal in Winnebago society. These “unwritten” rules by which the Winnebago live, serve as a direct counterpoint to the common and academic view of the so-called savage in the concurrent era as a brutish figure ruled by his own passions. In these enumerated “laws” of the Winnebago, Radin has shown that those viewed as savages are governed by the same sort of laws that we observe; such as the “Golden Rule”, “honor your parents”, “Do not kill”, “keep your word”,etc.

Not to be idealistic, as these are the perfect conditions, and like our own society, conditions are hardly ever perfect, so it is not without warrant that we expect instances where these rules are not abided by. Subsequently, as with our own society, there are repercussions for acting outside of acceptable social behavior..

Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941)

This article was not covered in class and is not required, but there is a prezi to help cut thru the fluff.


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  • Ben Johnson  On February 17, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    additional Notes on Paul Radin’s work entitled: Right and Wrong

    Radin’s field work, like many of the works of anthropologists struggle with the misconstrued concepts of the egocentric perceptions. the conceptual barrier he confronts is the notion that those outside of our immediate understanding must be ethically, emotionally and therefor socially incapable of self control. In this particular article, he considers the role of ethics in societies, and uses his work with the Winnebago as a point of development. Like his mentor Boas, he uses his personal experiences in the field and extends them to be compared and contrasted with other human species (in this artical he keeps it to the “Western European” perspective).
    He begins by providing a body of data that presents to the anthropological community the foundations to discredit the concept of a socially savage society. This data, consisting of 23 quotes taken from participatory (on site living) ethnographic research is more than enough to convey that the Winnebago people have not just ethics, but extensive emotional, and social self control.

    “Briefly stated the underlying idea of conduct among most primitive tribes is self-discipline, self-control, and a resolute endeavor to observe a proper measure of proportion in all things” -Radin

    .. i would like to take a moment to deviate from this article and encourage you, the reader to apply this statement to yourself.

    What have you eaten the last two days? did you you consciously practice portion control while eating your last three meals? were these meals within reasonable caloric proportions?

    What have your purchases been in the last 48 hours? to what degree did you NEED the things you bought? did it occur to you to consider this concept while purchasing the items?

    What Radin observes whilst with the Winnebago is that these social concepts are not theoretical, but are alive in the social interaction and daily lives of the Winnebago peoples. That is not to say that the Winnebago had some super understanding of social order, but rather that in relation to each other it was more socially important to act with the highest regard of the group rather than the individual. This placement of value on the individuals social context rather than the individuals value helped to relieve social tensions. Radin states “the majority of cases none of the Winnebago Virtues or actions are extolled for their own sake”.

    This concept leads us to Radin’s consideration of the Western and Europeon perspective of social and emotional behavior. What do we hold in high value in our social interaction? Raden proposes that thepresence of Christian ideology has risen our concepts of love, sorrow, remorse and other such ‘individual’ capabilities the the level of virtue, and by doing so provides some leeway as to our adherence to them in actual social conduct. In contrast, the Winnebago form opinions of others through their social behavior, holding each accountable to their own.

    perhaps this would be best communicated by example. if a person abuses another, we often times give them a level of leeway if they appear to be making a conscious attempt to better them self. we may say.. ” well jenny does have a bad temper, but she tries and is getting better.” by doing this we place focus on her intent to be someone else, insinuation that her current behavior is not as important.

    in contrast, the Winnebago perspective would focus on jennies current state of behavior. they may something more like “jenny abuses.” this statement places her behavior solely on herself in relation to those around her. It insinuates that she, like all of us, is responsible for our own decisions, and should control ourselves appropriately. if jenny were to stop abusing, and learn to control herself, then she could be newly referred to as “Jenny is a good friend”. or “Jenny helps others”. but untill she does it, she is not it.

    …. further discussion?

  • Marcus Rockwell  On March 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Right and Wrong
    (Paul Radin)

    The title of this article provides excellent foreshadowing. Right and wrong. Ok then, in the realm of the relative, right and wrong exist. Start analyzing, right and wrong fall by the wayside in the realm of the ultimate. One cannot ignore the relative in favor of dwelling in the ultimate, as both have their place. Relative and ultimate exist in the mind. This work, undoubtedly finds its home in the realm of the relative.

    The natives Radins studies, hold sacred some of the following morals… “It is always good to be good”, (good cannot exist without bad, it is not possible to be “always good” if one thinks in this way), “For the good you do, everyone will love you… be friendly with everyone and everyone will love you”, (it is unlikely that jealousy is non-existent among our natives, there are those who will not love you no matter what you do, if you try to make everyone love you, you can expect to become their slave), “Do not abuse your wife, women are sacred”, (elevating women to supernatural status is dangerous, women are no more or less sacred than men), “It is not good to gamble” (obvious, native economics is based overwhelmingly on the money dropped in its casinos, the people our author studied opened their newest “not good” attraction in 2004).

    There is a tendency to conclude the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) natives are more socially evolved than we are. The pendulum has swung the other way from early ethnography; their ethics are somehow superior to our own. Let us stop the swinging altogether and consider values source as keeping in check pressing urges, made from psychological disposition unique to past environment, rather than moral maxims to be followed by those searching for truth in the circle of right over wrong.

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